By Luke Coffey
May 11, 2019
In the early days of the Trump administration, many doubted the US leader’s willingness to tackle the problems with Iran inherited from the previous administration.
Trump had campaigned strongly on promises to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), even making US withdrawal one of his main foreign policy issues on the trail. However, many questioned whether his actions as president would match his rhetoric as a candidate.
Now, more than halfway through his first term, there can be no doubt.
The experts said that Trump would never decertify the Iran deal. He did. The same experts said that he would never withdraw from the deal. He did. Other experts said that he would not designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. He did. The experts also said he would continue issuing sanctions waivers to allow countries such as India, Japan and South Korea to keep buying Iranian oil. He did not issue the waivers.
All of this has been part of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
Following the recent developments involving Iran, it is worth recalling why the world is in this situation to began with. Put simply, the agreement negotiated under the Obama administration was a bad deal with three fatal flaws that almost guaranteed its eventual demise.
First, the deal could not live up to its original goal of preventing Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon. Instead, the best-case scenario was that the JCPOA merely delayed Iran’s progress.
Second — and the deal’s “original sin” — were the so-called sunset clauses that allow key restrictions on items such as uranium enrichment, centrifuge production and international monitoring to expire after a certain number of years, in some cases as early as 15 years.
Third, the deal offered Tehran massive sanctions and economic relief up front while only requiring it to make temporary and easily reversible concessions on its nuclear program. This money has been used to fan the flames of terrorism across much of the Middle East.
In addition to these flaws, the deal has other problems, specifically its inability to curb Iran’s ballistic missile program and to ensure unconditional access to all its military facilities by international inspectors.
As part of its maximum pressure campaign, the Trump administration has also made efforts to improve relations with the Gulf states that are on the frontline of Iranian aggression. Perhaps most importantly, the Trump administration has shown that it will put its allies and its partners first, before trying to appease adversaries such as Iran. This completely differs from the approach seen under the Obama administration.
I will never forget a conversation I had a decade ago with a senior government official from an unnamed Gulf state. Seeing what the Obama administration did to the Czech Republic and Poland when it unexpectedly canceled missile defense sites in those two countries, he asked a simple question: If Obama was willing to throw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to get better relations with Russia, then why wouldn’t he throw us under the bus to have better relations with Iran?
And a few years later with the JCPOA, that is exactly what happened.
But even with his campaign, Trump does not want war with Iran. Although some of those around him are known for their hawkish military views, the US leader is instinctively opposed to military intervention abroad.
That is why his ultimate goal is to bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table. It is no secret that Trump fancies himself as a great dealmaker. He believes that he can get a better deal out of the Iranians than Obama did. Whether he can do this is impossible to tell, but his goal is to force the Tehran regime back to the table, not necessarily force it out of power.
It is also worth pointing out that Europeans are starting to question if sticking with the JCPOA is worth the trouble — and this does not bode well for Tehran.
The EU’s foreign policy supremo, Federica Mogherini, who personally keeps the EU chained to the corpse of the Iran nuclear deal, will be leaving her position later this year. Europeans are also becoming more aware of Iran’s malignant activity in their own backyard, such as the assassination plots in the Netherlands recently uncovered and linked to Tehran. Finally, it is likely that the UK will align its position on the nuclear deal with the US as soon as it formally leaves the EU.
Is the maximum pressure campaign working? It is too early to tell, but the outlook is not good for Iran.
Looking at the numbers, it is clear that Tehran is feeling the heat: At least 20 countries that once bought oil from Iran now buy none. There have been 26 rounds of economic sanctions that have denied Iran an estimated $10 billion in revenue. The country’s economy is in tatters. Public discontent is high. Tehran’s military adventures in places such as Syria are becoming costly. Meanwhile, the Iranian people are suffering.
President Trump campaigned during the 2016 presidential election on leaving the deal. One of his mantras for the 2020 campaign is: “Promises made, promises kept.”
It should be crystal clear, from Tehran to Brussels and everywhere in between, that the Trump administration is serious about confronting Iran’s nuclear aspirations and regional ambitions.
There can be no doubt: Trump is serious about stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. It is time for Tehran, the Europeans and anyone else in denial to wake up to this new reality.